New Orleans has earned its reputation as one of America’s great party cities. We saw that first-hand when we visited the Crescent City in October. The place truly never sleeps. From The French Quarter, to downtown to the stately Uptown, Carrollton and University districts to all along the Mississippi River, which winds through the city, New Orleans has no shortage of watering holes that are open 24/7.
While The Big Easy in unquestionably a great drinking city, I don’t necessarily think that it’s a city of great drinks. Sure, many great classic cocktails were invented in New Orleans, but everywhere we went the focus was on quick and convenient sweet high-alcohol drinks meant to get your blood-alcohol level rising in a hurry.
Even at Pat O’Brien’s, one of the city’s most famous drinking establishments on Bourbon Street, I saw an obvious lack of sophistication. Of course, that’s not why people go there. They go for the Hurricanes, which were invented there. Unfortunately, they’re pre-made and poured in large volume. You can even get them in to-go cups to take with you as you visit other stops along the city’s most famous street.
I have to say that the Sazerac at Pat O’Brien’s was excellent. Perhaps the most acclaimed cocktail originating in New Orleans, the Sazerac is a Bourbon-based drink mixed with simple syrup, Peyshaud’s Bitters and Angustora Bitters and served in a glass rinsed with Pernod and garnished with a lemon twist. It’s not a true Sazerac if it doesn’t include Peyshaud’s Bitters. By far the best cocktail I had during my stay. Nevertheless, I was astounded that the bartender didn’t know how to make a Whiskey Sour using fresh ingredients, and instead used a pre-made sour mix. He was unfamiliar with some basic mixing skills you’d expect at such a renowned establishment.
The knowledge meter didn’t change much a few blocks away at another well-known bar, Lafittte’s Blacksmith Shop, where we grabbed a Voodoo, another high-octane frozen drink resembling a grape slushy, and a Cherry Bomb, a cup of maraschino cherries soaked in Everclear. Simple, sweet and effective. No wonder Bourbon Street has earned its reputation.
The pre-made frozen cocktails are pretty much symbolic of what I found around New Orleans. I’ve never seen a place where “Drive-through Daiquiris” are the norm. High-alcohol fruit-flavored slushy drinks served in to-go cups come with names like 190 Octane, Banana Banshee, Cat 5 Hurricane, Eye Candy, Mardi Gras Mash, Swamp Sludge and Jungle Juice and are available on many street corners.
Naturally, I also had to check out the local craft beer scene, but was a bit disappointed. In fact, I found that throughout our travels the craft beer selections were pretty limited. NOLA Brewing Co. had some nice offerings among their regular rotation, including their award-winning Hopitoulas IPA and the Irish Channel Stout, and some interesting specialty beers among their rotations, including brews featuring pineapple and ghost pepper, blackberry and sage. I’m sure their novelty beers are helping to drive a few more beer drinkers to NOLA Brewing.
We didn’t have the chance to visit Crescent City Brewhouse in the French Quarter or any of the other craft breweries just outside of New Orleans, but it was obvious that the industry is not very advanced in the region and through most of the areas that we traveled along the way. None of those, including the widely known Abita Brewery, were “can’t miss” destinations, so we missed them.
Of course, with so many other imbibing options in town, it figures that craft beer would fall behind the “bang-them-out” cocktails found pretty much at every corner. Clearly, people don’t go to New Orleans for craft beers. And I didn’t see evidence that they go for finely crafted cocktails, either.